Image Source: NBC News
On August 13th, libertarian Javier Milei became the most-voted candidate in the primary elections in Argentina, with his political party La Libertad Avanza also securing the highest number of votes. In this manner, he outperformed both the Juntos coalition candidates (formed and led by former President Mauricio Macri) and Kirchnerist candidate Sergio Massa, current Minister of Economy. The far-right candidate surprised everyone by emerging victorious in an election that was anticipated to be more closely contested, securing 30 percent of the votes. This outcome was unexpected as most polls had placed him in third position. Consequently, Milei may be Argentina’s next president for the 2023-2027 term.
What would a Javier Milei presidency look like? Most of the analyses attempting to address this question refer to the candidate’s ambitious and controversial proposals. These include a profound State reform aimed at reducing public expenditure, the elimination of the Central Bank, and the dollarization of the economy, which stand out as some of his most popular ideas. Nonetheless, significantly less attention has been paid to Milei’s foreign policy views, how he sees the world, and Argentina’s position. Of course, foreign policy is seldom among the top issues on a presidential candidate’s agenda in Argentina, as well as voters’ interest. This is arguably reasonable in a country with enormous macroeconomic problems, including over 120 percent annual inflation.
Consequently, this article aims to dissect some elements embedded within Milei and some of his key team members that could offer insights into how Argentina’s foreign policy might unfold under a Milei administration. In pursuit of this goal, we will closely examine Milei’s stance towards Argentina’s most crucial international partners: the U.S. and the Western world, China and its South American partners, as well as the Mercosur trade bloc.
The “Trump of the Pampas” and Argentina’s Main Partners
In a recent interview, Milei expressed that his key international allies would be the United States and Israel, also mentioning his intention to relocate Argentina’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It’s hard not to draw parallels between this statement and the striking similarities to Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right former president of Brazil often referred to as “the Trump of the tropics.”
If that comparison holds true for Bolsonaro, a similar case could be made for Milei as the “Trump of the Pampas.” There are several resemblances between these three leaders, including their employment of populist rhetoric, their articulation of societal dissatisfaction with established politicians, and their conservative outlook on social issues. They also share the identification of socialism, currently manifested as “cultural Marxism” as their central adversary. Remarkably, the announcement regarding the embassy’s move to Jerusalem mirrors the actions of these former presidents (though it’s worth noting that Bolsonaro never successfully executed this move).
While it appears evident that Milei will strive for alignment with the West, it’s equally pertinent to acknowledge that neither Trump nor Bolsonaro currently holds power. As he navigates the international stage, Milei will encounter Western leaders who, for the most part, stand as political adversaries to them (such as Joe Biden) or, at the very least, have displayed substantial divergences. Notably, G7 leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fall into this category due to their differing perspectives.
However, according to Diana Mondino–a Senior Economic Advisor to Milei and potentially his future Minister of Foreign Relations–Argentina’s approach will be establishing friendly relations with the U.S. and all democratic nations while reconsidering connections and agreements with “autocratic” counterparts. Thereby, Milei seems to be fully aligned with what some have called ‘The Biden Doctrine,’ which identifies the contest between democracies and autocracies as the “center clash of our time.” What remains to be seen, though, is how the Biden administration would receive Javier Milei.
If this approach was implemented, it could trigger highly disruptive consequences for Argentina. This is because China plays an essential role as both a critical trading partner and a significant source of financial aid for Argentina, a country grappling with an exceedingly challenging fiscal predicament due to its International Monetary Fund (IMF) debt. Despite the stern stance Milei might take towards China, practical limitations would significantly curb his ability to execute such actions. The precarious financial situation makes the Chinese Swaps indispensable for Argentina’s survival in the midst of a severe shortage of foreign currency. Additionally, the influential agribusiness sector is unlikely to permit such measures, as China constitutes Argentina’s most paramount export market. Nonetheless, Milei could potentially succeed in creating political distance from China, such as withdrawing Argentina’s candidacy from the BRICS group.
Returning to the matter of relations with the U.S., it remains uncertain how the Biden administration would perceive Javier Milei. On the one hand, there are indications of the administration’s readiness to align with the U.S.’s crucial interests. Conversely, Milei’s strong association with Trump might complicate bilateral relations. Thus, Milei would need to strive to avoid cultivating a Bolsonaro-like dynamic with the White House.
Concerning relations with neighboring countries, Milei has not extensively commented on this matter. One might anticipate challenges in the relationship with Brazil’s president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, given Milei’s affinity with Bolsonaro, whose politically prominent son Eduardo recently rallied support for him after his victory. Regarding the Mercosur trade bloc, Milei had previously advocated for its dissolution a few years back, akin to Trump’s approach towards NAFTA upon assuming office. However, Mondino has conveyed a notably more moderate stance, suggesting that it should be revitalized, potentially aligning with Uruguay’s viewpoint of flexibilization. Regarding Uruguay, the libertarian candidate has expressed a measured level of criticism towards President Lacalle Pou, asserting that he is “far from being a liberal” while acknowledging him as a “genuine Keynesian.” Last but not least, Milei maintains a strong ally in Chile’s far-right candidate José Antonio Kast, who is considered one of the frontrunners for the 2025 presidential elections.
Only two months separate us from Argentina’s general election. Despite the brevity of this timeframe, it can feel like a lifetime in a country like Argentina. Within the week following the primary elections, the government already devalued the official Peso-to-Dollar exchange rate by nearly 18 percent, and economic prices have surged considerably since August 14. In such a complex nation, anything can transpire within 60 days.
Nevertheless, Milei’s position appears, at the very least, formidable. In a country where circumstances are likely to worsen leading up to the October general elections, he holds the advantage of symbolizing the “real” change for the nation, given his lack of prior public office. Consequently, closely monitoring his campaign and proposals will be pivotal. Foreign policy is often marginalized in such analyses, despite its significance for a country that offers numerous opportunities due to its abundance of natural resources, such as food, critical minerals, and renewable energies.
Despite the Trump-like “hawkish” narrative that Milei presents concerning foreign policy, he will face a challenging landscape that might constrain his intentions. The absence of like-minded governments in the region could potentially leave Argentina isolated within the area, at least until Chile’s 2025 elections, where Kast might emerge victorious. However, if Milei were to secure the presidency, the most pivotal geopolitical factor he would need to monitor would be the U.S. elections, particularly if Trump emerges as the GOP nominee. An ideal scenario for the international position Milei envisions for Argentina would involve him as president this year alongside a Trump win in the United States.
A Milei presidency holds the promise of ushering in substantial and disruptive changes to Argentina’s political and economic landscape. Its disruptive nature is already evident in its ability to challenge the dominance of the polarizing Juntos and Kirchnerist coalitions, which have controlled the political spectrum for the past decade. However, as we have previously explored in the context of foreign policy, it remains imperative to closely scrutinize the constraints that would shape his pursuit of the significant transformations he aims to enact.
Fernando Prats is a Senior Analyst at London Politca’s Latin America Desk. He also serves as a research and teaching assistant at Rosario National University in Argentina.